Twenty years ago this week, Matilda—arguably the best Roald Dahl adaptation ever filmed—landed in theaters.
For the occasion, we asked the cast and crew to tell us about filming one particular part: the beloved chocolate cake scene. The scene stars 12-year-old Jimmy Karz as Bruce Bogtrotter, an overweight schoolboy whose sadistic teacher, Miss Trunchbull, forces him to eat an enormous chocolate cake in front of his classmates. Karz (who now prefers Jim) is currently a 32-year-old osteopathic medical student. He looks nothing like the chubby 12-year-old Bruce. He insists he's not scarred for life.
Danny DeVito (director, producer and co-star): I know my daughters brought me the book. We were starting to read chapter books at the time. One of the early ones that they brought in was Matilda. I had never heard of it before. It was a great thing. We all started every night, reading that chapter.
Jim Karz (played Bruce Bogtrotter): I auditioned for it. That was the first audition that I'd ever been on.
DeVito: I auditioned a lot of people. The whole idea was putting everybody around [Matilda actress] Mara. I don't remember exactly who or how many I auditioned. Usually, when the right person shows up, you know it. He was the right person.
Karz: The first couple auditions were pretty standard. You read your lines with a casting director. And then the third audition, I read my lines with Danny DeVito at Sony Studios. That was an extraordinary experience because I had never interacted with a celebrity like that before. It was a really dimly lit room, and Danny was very passionate and really getting into his role. He was playing the Trunchbull.
DeVito: The kid was great. Kid from the Valley. I met his parents. They're really, really great people. He was perfect. He did everything I wanted. I asked him to do a lot of cake-eating, man. He was so cool. He's an orthopedic doctor now. I don't know exactly if he's a surgeon or just a bone guy.
Karz: I was [playing] a mischievous, chubby kid. I guess I fit half of the description. I had to act the other half.
For the scene, DeVito gathered hundreds of children in the auditorium and let them go nuts, cheering and yelling while Bogtrotter devoured the cake.
DeVito: They were all screaming and hollering. And boy! The outtakes are amazing too. There were some really disgusting [shots], with him pushing the cake with his face.
Mara Wilson (played Matilda): Oh my goodness. That scene took forever to film. Matilda was such a joy to film—most of the scenes just felt like a lot of fun. That one was not so much fun.
Kiami Davael (played Lavender): We had an absolute blast filming that scene. I remember the auditorium was filled with so many kids, many of them I never got the pleasure of personally meeting.
Wilson: It was just hard for a lot of kids to sit down for a long time, as you can imagine. But at least we were all together, and at least we finally got to stand up and yell! It was always fun when there were a lot of kids on the set.
Davael: One of the most enjoyable parts of the scene is being able to chant "Bruce, Bruce, Bruce!" I mean, what kid doesn't enjoy screaming while inside, right?
Karz: [I had to] practice eating. But that came naturally. I was pretty good at eating.
DeVito: As much as I could, I put [the kids] all in the same place at the same time and let them live together. Hang out, have lunch, talk, chitchat.
Karz: Danny DeVito was a fantastic director. If you did the right thing or if you acted the way he envisioned, you could feed off his energy.
Davael: Danny would always make sure that we kept our energy up and that we didn't get bored. He's amazing.
Stefan Czapsky (cinematographer): I'd known Danny. I shot Batman Returns. When [DeVito] invited me to work on Matilda, it was funny because I only knew him as the Penguin. It took a little bit of time to know Danny DeVito the director versus Danny DeVito the Penguin.
The cake (well, cakes—it took a lot of chocolate to get this scene right) were provided by a friend of DeVito's. According to the director, it was a very, very good cake. The cake-eater himself isn't as enthusiastic.
DeVito: We made that cake. My friend Kathleen is a chef. You know the Magnolia Bakery? It's that kind of cake. That's my favorite kind of cake. I don't like a cake that's not sweet. I like a cake that has sugar in it. I'm really sensitive to it now, because I'm trying to lose weight, blah, blah, blah. But if you can eat a piece of cake—especially chocolate cake, with vanilla cake and chocolate icing—it's gotta have the right taste. And that Magnolia Bakery taste is—not to keep plugging them, because I don't know 'em from Adam—but that's the kind of cake it is. You know what I'm saying? It's that really tasty, sweet kind of rich cake. There's nothing fake about it.
Karz: There were a ton of cakes. They had a factory, like, pumping out the cakes. Seemed like every day there was a new cake on set. They had three or four ready to go if they needed. It seemed like there was a lot of cake always at the ready. I don't know how much I ate. It was definitely a lot.
DeVito: The cake was a big character. And we all like to eat cake. I do. And he did. And he ate a lot of cake.
Czapsky: What was ironic about it was, the actor who played Bruce? He didn't like chocolate cake. They had a spit bucket for him. It worked for the scene because it was kind of like a child torture scene—to force him to eat chocolate cake.
Wilson: Poor Jimmy, who played Bruce, though! I asked him before we filmed if he liked chocolate, and he said "Kind of." I thought "Only 'kind of'? Uh-oh." I asked him at the end of it if he still liked chocolate. He got this thousand-yard stare and said, "I'm sick of it."
Czapsky: I felt a little bit sorry for the kid. But I think it really worked in terms of his dramatic expression. He really did not want to eat that cake.
Wilson: And yet any one of the kids on that set would have helped him with that task, gladly.
Karz: After a while, it became more of a chore than anything. It's not like it scarred me for life. I still enjoy cake.
Czapsky: There was a certain set of lenses that I did a lot of food photography [with]. You wanted to focus just a couple of inches from the piece of sausage or something. You could keep turning the lens until it fell out of its housing. I had ordered a set of close-focusing area-sized primes that I would use in situations like this, where I wanted to make moves from the kid's face and then drop down over the chocolate cake.
Karz: The hardest thing was coming to set every day and getting the chocolate painted onto my face the way it was painted the day before. And wearing that crusty shirt every day. That was probably the worst, as far as I can remember.
Czapsky: It was shot photochemically. I've been working continually since then. Now everything is basically digital. Knowing you can go into post-process and change what you want to. At the time that this movie was shot, I think the cinematographer held a different position—you actually were in charge of how it looked through the lighting.
DeVito: When I did the movie, there was no CG stuff. It was, like, BCG. I mean, there were some little CGs that you could do. But this was really real-time stuff. All those kids are in that auditorium while Mr. Bogtrotter—Jimmy—is eating that cake.
Czapsky: This was a pre–Michael Bay, pre–David Fincher period. It was a more collaborative period, where the director worked with the cinematographer and collaborated on the storytelling aspect of how to shoot it. It was a really satisfying time to work as a cinematographer. You actually were in charge of the look of the movie.
DeVito: I did a lot of crazy shots. Which is really what I like to do. And the cake was good. It was good cake—really.... It was oversized. We had to do it really detailed so that Bruce had a good foil. A good other character to act with [laughs].
British actress Pam Ferris (who declined to be interviewed for this feature) played the villain, a cruel headmistress who takes delight in tormenting students. This particular scene took weeks to film, though much of the crucial work took place later in the editing room.
Wilson: I think [Ferris] tried to keep her distance so we would still be scared of her, but she's just too nice. We all loved her. She is one of the kindest people I have ever met.
Davael: She has such amazing energy, and once the cameras cut, she'd smile so brightly. We all loved her.
Wilson: She told me once that she knew her cover was blown when one of the little girl extras came up to her one day and just took her by the hand.
Czapsky: What was unusual about this particular scene was we kept going back and shooting more and more shots for it. The work rules in Los Angeles and Hollywood are very protective of child labor. You could only work an eight-hour day, of which [the child] could only be on camera a smaller portion of that.
Karz: It seemed like it was about three weeks. I don't know if that was a consequence of my bad acting skills or maybe Danny DeVito—he likes to see a lot of different things. Different angles.
Czapsky: Danny, he's a perfectionist. He wanted to have all of the editing possibilities for being able to create a scene in the editing room. I think it might have been 144 shots for the scene. We just kept going back at the end of the day and shooting more.
DeVito: We did a lot of good stuff with wide and close millimeters. But the camera really pushed up close so it looked distorted and out of whack.... It was really fun. In fact, I'd like to do it again.
Czapsky: It became a little bit of a joke within the crew: "OK, we're going back for more chocolate cake?"
The film was not particularly successful during its initial theatrical run, but it became something of a cult classic on VHS. In 2013, the cast reunited to celebrate the Blu-ray release and filmed a very funny re-enactment of the cake scene.
DeVito: I thought it was gonna be popular. When I was making the movie, none of the adults I talked to knew the book. They'd say, "What are you doing?" "I'm making this movie." "What's the name of it?" "It's Matilda! It's a Roald Dahl book." All the adults would go, "Oh! Blah, blah, blah." They didn't know shit. Every kid, I'd say, "I'm making Matilda." They'd all know it!
Czapsky: I felt like we were doing a very good adaptation of the book. I don't remember her name, but Roald Dahl's daughter was there consulting. It was shocking to me, because the movie didn't do very well when it came out.
Karz: I remember going to see the movie for the first time, when it came out in theaters, with the summer camp that I was going to. That was pretty crazy. It was a little embarrassing, I think.... I guess I wasn't prepared to see myself on a movie screen covered in cake. That made me cringe a little bit.
Czapsky: I run into people occasionally who still tell me, "Oh, you did that movie? My kids love that movie!"
Karz: It made me more popular in general, just because I was in a movie.... [But] it kind of motivated me to want to have more of a normal life. I guess I wanted to be recognized for something more meaningful.
DeVito: We had a reunion of the entire cast. At my house. Those are all the kids grown up! It's amazing! And they're all really wonderful kids! We actually brought another cake out.
Karz: The last time I saw the movie was a week ago [laughs]. I was working at a clinic where I was with other students, and they had this old VHS player. One of the girls from our class had a big, old collection of movies. Coincidentally, Matilda was in there. It was funny, watching it amongst my peers. It's not something I do every day. I kind of embrace it more than I used to.
DeVito: Jimmy's looking amazing. He's grown into a fine young man. He was a little chub-chub when I knew him. Now he's a strapping young gentleman! And a doc-tah! Oh, I need bone doctors, man. I'm the original guy in need of bone doctors.